John Phillip Short closes his meticulous study of German colonial culture with a description of a magic-lantern show in Bavaria in 1891.footnote1 A series of dissolving views presents sights of the Isle of Zanzibar and the landscape of Central Africa. In this play of illumination, light is slowly stepped down on one image and brought up on a second, so that, perfectly, magically, a new image resolves into view in place of the earlier one. The magic-lantern show advertised itself as instructive. It projected, for viewers’ edification, the ‘newest results of the colonial endeavours in Central Africa’ based on ‘authentic reports’ by the explorers Emin Pasha and Dr Carl Peters, as well as the Imperial Commissioner Major von Wissmann.

Significant authorities were invoked to testify to the educational value of the display. But instruction was not the only outcome. Short points out how the magic-lantern slides glow attractively. The show is a captivating spectacle; it plays with the wonders of appearance and disappearance. Distant colonies are brought near, flickering into view. Yet, shimmering on the screen, they appear chimerical, unattainable, barely tangible. Visions materialize and melt, like dreams. This vignette marks out the parameters of this intricate book: the magic-lantern show functions as a dialectical image of knowledge and enchantment. Late-nineteenth-century German audiences appear as the objects of colonial knowledge. They are to be taught ‘hard facts’ about the distant lands that have become their concern, or better, the concern of German capital, for they are the Second Reich’s trading ground and source of raw materials. But those same audiences are subjects too, and the subjective aspect of knowing what Empire is involves quantities of dreaming and fantasizing about enthralling remote lands, where bizarre delights and perplexing dangers occur in equal measure.

Some of Short’s other examples divide the functions of knowing and enchanting more strictly. The agents who were involved in communicating ideas of Empire and the German colonies of South-West Africa from the 1870s to the 1910s ranged from hucksters to government officials to religious figures to enthusiasts, and there was a spectrum too of ideas mediated and interests represented in each of their communications. For some, the colonies were the object of scientific knowledge. The secrets of the Dark Continent were to be penetrated. Colonialism was conceived as a set of questions of agronomy, geography, tropical medicine, ethnography, the colonial labour question and national economic matters. Discussion of these matters took place at evenings attended by gentlemen of means, who might gather to discuss the future of German business in Kiaochow or to consider the implications for the German economy of rubber cultivation in Cameroon. Knowledge was to be gained, myth and fantasy expunged. Men of serious intent devised strategies for the dissemination of sober knowledge in schools, universities and commercial academies. On this basis, business and the National Interest were to be forwarded.

For others, indeed the greater number, the colonies were alluring, exotic, shocking and compellingly unknowable. Colourful, dreadful, fascinating visions of the colonies found their way to audiences through entrepreneurs who cobbled together travelling shows. In such shows, curious objects appeared in collage: nautical instruments next to machine guns, gigantic butterflies and beetles alongside samples of raw materials, weapons, ceremonial jewellery, native costumes and crafts. Sometimes humans formed the display. In ethnographic shows, a native village was created, with characteristic dwellings (or versions of them), typical tools and weapons and the animals with whom men and women had commonly shared their lives. Human groups would enact displays of skills, ceremonial rituals, dances and musical events, fights and hunting scenes. Sometimes these were strongly eroticized, with promises of fetish-priestesses, masses of girls, nakedness, exotic ornament, scarification, and ‘full-blooded’ king’s sons with well-shaped bodies. They were dioramas come to life but, not strictly factual, they were a sensationalist confection, a ‘racial grotesque’. Short sees them as purveyors of ‘carnival knowledge’.

Colonial knowledge of another unofficial type appeared on doorsteps and in pubs in the bags of tacky wares peddled by colporteurs. Affordable prints and postcards with enticing titles were sold in pubs and beer gardens. The high point of German colonialism coincided with the emergence of a mass market for books. An extensive literature of colonialism developed, and Short is exhaustive in his mapping of literary vehicles of colonial education and distraction. He considers the collections of public, Socialist and factory libraries and reading rooms—he consults a survey of workers’ reading habits undertaken by a Dresden librarian in 1910, which showed that of fifty proletarian readers one-fifth read books on African exploration. The broad span of colonial literature includes racy novels, tales of missionary life, travelogues, magazines, and popular scientific literature. In these, knowledge, fantasy, spectacle, morality, propaganda are variously enmeshed. Diverse agencies of the political Right and Left sought to categorize such popular literature as either creditable or harmful. Cheap pamphlet fiction, sold by the millions door to door or next to the cigarette counter, brought to an industrial working class books with vivid covers and titles such as Black Ivory From Cameroon or, somewhat excessively, Prince Tuan, the Secretive Emperor of China, or, The Poisoner of Peking: Destinies of a German Girl in China’s Wonderland, A Chinese–German Sensation–Romance. Cannibalism was a popular theme in the more ‘vulgar’ dime novels, while the illustrated magazines, sold by street peddlers and in factories, had features on pygmies and other human ‘curiosities’ in their pages. Hints of sacrifice and violence abounded. Short terms this type of appropriation ‘the ethnographic-fantastic’, and illustrates its visual form with a plate of the snake temple in Waida, from Richard Oberländer’s book Westafrika vom Senegal bis Benguela, published in 1878. The vision is lurid. Half-naked natives tangle in the dark with writhing, hissing snakes, while a colonial official, arms folded, in military garb, a lengthy sword by his side, looks on, as if from another world.

As Short relates it, a tussle ensued between those who would convey empire—and from the early 1900s this included the Social Democratic Party, the opponents of colonialism as well as its advocates—as an essential part of a modernized, global world of trade flows, and those who found profit in presenting an image of colonial possessions as mysterious, exotic faraway lands in which life could be lived—or imagined—quite differently. All this is not to say that the popular appropriation of empire was simply a fantastical one, driven by desire and repulsion, while the bourgeois gentleman cogently assessed the economic rationale for imperialist expansion. Short paints vivid enough pictures of educated, establishment figures who toyed with dramatic fantasies of mobilizing Empire for the purposes of revenge against the populace. Some evoked the colonies as a potential dumping ground for an uppity or degenerate working class, meshing in some way the phantasms of nationalist politics and the pragmatics of class struggle. The Saxon colonialist Ernst von Weber warned of the need for a ‘mass export of revolutionary tinder’ to South-West Africa, pointing to forty million proletarians in Germany whose ‘titanic spiritual and physical forces threaten the normal development of human culture here in Europe’. Likewise, colonial propagandist Friedrich Fabri, director of the Barmen Rhine Missionary Society, argued in his widely distributed tract Does Germany Need Colonies? that the anti-socialist laws of 1878 had not gone far enough, and suggested, presumably with a degree of irony, that a suitable island—perhaps called Utopia (though in reality a penal colony)—could be allotted to Germany’s budding Communards. Their programme of universal happiness might then be put into practice and to the test. To achieve this, though, Germany would need suitable possessions, and of these, according to Fabri, it had not nearly enough. Conversely, working-class desires for a place under the hot sun of Empire are not read by Short as simply irrational dreams of a new and languid life in utterly different conditions. He quotes extensively from letters posted by working-class and lower-middle-class men and women to the Colonial Office, the Foreign Office or the Kaiser directly. These letters articulate the desire to start a new life in the colonies, as a quest for embourgeoisement. Shop girls, artisans and mechanics outline their skills—tailoring, ironing, hairdressing, typing, farming—and how they might put them to good use in Africa. For example, a weaver appears as a budding capitalist, eager to exploit the profit potential in African labour. The letter-writers request loans to make these trips possible. Restless and bored, they feel at a loss in German society. They believe in placing their skills ‘in the service of the beloved German fatherland’. For Short, these poignant letters, which inexpertly express the wish to escape difficult personal or economic conditions at home, present flashes of lower-class individuals operating not as objects of propaganda, but as subjects, as agents, who actively wish to participate in economic development.

This is popular colonialism and it developed, he states, independently of the ‘organized enthusiasm of the upper classes’. It had to: a central claim of the book is that the official agencies of colonial knowledge and the organized colonial movement had no interest in including the lower classes in their discussions and gatherings. The regional colonial societies did not invite members of the working classes to participate in their meetings. Officers, government officials and businessmen formed the majority of attendees, with tiny numbers of petty civil servants, innkeepers or other small traders. The lower classes were addressed only as the objects of propaganda—or not addressed at all, for Empire was none of their business. In this regard, the plaintive letters requesting overseas deployment indicate some sort of autonomous thinking through of the self in relation to Empire. The letter-writers will not be admitted, of course, for they have no capital and their labour is superfluous. The colonies have labourers enough, African ones, overseen by the occasional European, who possesses them as he possesses capital. As the industrialist and politician Walther Rathenau observed in 1908: